Four hundred teenagers converged outside the four-star Hilton hotel in San Francisco, then pushed inside the plush lobby with whoops and chants. Many stood behind posterboards cut out to represent jail bars; other placards said Educate, Don’t Incarcerate. Once assembled, the motley group of protesters shot their fists in the air–the signal to stand still and be quiet. A designated spokesperson broke the dense silence: “We’re here to speak to your manager. We want to know why Hilton funded a state ballot initiative that would lock children up in adult prisons.”
Youth activists upset business as usual at a string of Hilton hotels in California in a recent campaign to protest the company’s contribution to Proposition 21, renamed “California’s War on Youth Initiative” by its opponents. (After youth repeatedly stormed the headquarters of Pacific Gas & Electric to protest its $50,000 contribution to the pro-21 campaign, that company publicly pledged neutrality on the initiative.) If passed on March 7, Prop 21 would prescribe yearlong prison sentences for 14-year-old graffiti writers and felony charges for middle school students found guilty of any activity loosely defined as “gang recruitment.” In “three strikes” math, this adds up to the real possibility of a juvenile doing 25-to-life for schoolyard robbery. Prop 21 would obliterate the concept of rehabilitative juvenile justice in California and perhaps beyond: The state’s initiative process has been a national trendsetter for repressive campaigns, spawning tax revolts, three-strikes laws, anti-immigrant hysteria and the dismantling of affirmative action.
Young people of color organizing against Prop 21 are dancing with a contradiction: how to win a campaign that requires swaying white, middle-class voters who have historically betrayed them at the ballot box and many of whom see them as the “superpredator” generation. The stakes are high at the polls but, perhaps, higher in the streets, as young organizers redefine what it means to win. Up against California’s booming prison industry, the movement’s leaders are tackling Prop 21 while also hatching long-term organizing strategies and building sustainable coalitions. Van Jones, director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, explains: “Regardless of what happens on Election Day, a new generation of Californians is coming to political voice.”
The statewide organization Californians for Justice is helping to lead the fight. CFJ’s leadership is composed of people of color, mostly in their 20s, who were politicized and trained during the past decade’s crushing defeats on wedge-issue ballot initiatives. “We take on issues that impact low-income communities of color. So when we screen voter lists, we look for who’s impacted by the issues,” says CFJ co-director Abdi Soltani. Designed to circumvent the state legislature, the ballot-initiative process has attacked constituencies most marginalized from the electorate. CFJ’s counterstrategy is to build political power from the grassroots. CFJ’s army of young volunteers–more than 40 percent in its last campaign were under 20–attempts to mobilize those labeled “occasional,” even “unlikely,” on voter lists. Combining voter turnout with grassroots base-building, CFJ is targeting 500-600 precincts in low-income communities of color in its “No On 21” campaign.